Fire season in Santa Fe starts in the spring, when the winds pick up and threaten to carry the tiniest sparks—from a cigarette or a car backfiring—over New Mexico's arid landscape. By mid-summer's heat, fire season is in full swing. When fire tears through wilderness and the borders between populated areas and vast forests and mountains, specially trained wildland firefighters are the ones who answer the call.
Some wildland firefighters are salaried employees with regular departments, but most are volunteers, Krys Nystrom, a longtime volunteer for the Santa Fe County Fire Division, says.
"It could mean a two-week vacation if you go out on a fire," Nystrom says. Apparently, this is one of many worldviews that set firefighters apart from others. Volunteer firefighters with unrelated careers consider a large, out-of-control fire, like the Wallow Fire that has consumed much of Eastern Arizona this year, a good opportunity to take vacation time. Instead of going on a cruise, they strap on a heavy pack and work nonstop, covered in grime and sweat, often in dangerous conditions.
"I guess it depends on what your other job is," Nystrom says, grinning.
Depending on the situation, volunteers may actually get paid. Most wildland volunteers help out near where they live but, when a large fire demands extra resources, state or federal authorities may take over coordination and pay volunteers to help out. "It could mean a lot of money," Nystrom says.
The money is nice, but volunteers don't train up and work for free most of the year just to make a little extra cash in the summer. They thrive on the blood-pumping adrenaline rush, the strong feeling of camaraderie and the thrill of solving a big, hot problem. The surest sign that a person may be uniquely qualified to do a job is when other people think he or she is completely insane.
Nystrom knows she's not exactly normal.
"Most people don't run into buildings when they're burning, and most people don't run into fields when they're burning," she says. (And most people couldn't pass the annual fitness test for her job: a strenuous three-mile hike with a 45-pound pack that must be accomplished in less than 46 minutes.)
But if you're tough enough—and suited to the lifestyle—the rewards are plenty, Nystrom says.
A tall, fit 40-something, she answers questions in the matter-of-fact manner of someone who is accustomed to conveying important information in emergency situations. It comes as no surprise that she has one son in the US Army and another at New Mexico Military Institute. (Two of her three boys have been volunteer firefighters and helped put together a recruiting video for the department.)
More than a decade ago, Nystrom was an emergency medical technician when she began taking classes to become a structural firefighter. At the time, some older friends in the department lured her toward the wildland specialty. If firefighting were like competitive running, structural firefighters would be the sprinters and wildland firefighters would be the distance runners.
Nystrom believes that's one reason there are more women among wildland firefighters. Overall, women make up less than 4 percent of paid firefighters, but Nystrom says women are relatively common among volunteers in her specialty.
"I'm not sure what the appeal is," she says. "We tend to have more endurance and, I think, more tolerance for pain. It's a pretty popular thing for women to get into. I'm not unique by any means."
Endurance is crucial in a dynamic fire environment. Wildfires can last for weeks, and firefighters spend long days chopping down trees and digging ditches. Take the children's book image of a firefighter and replace the hose with a chainsaw and the the ladder with a shovel and you'll begin to develop a fuzzy image of a wildland firefighter at work. If you're picturing the wiry Nystrom, imagine a light brown French braid under her helmet and a friendly smile that twists up on one side when she thinks about racing out with her peers to confront a fire.
The bond among firefighters is what allows everyone to keep going in adverse situations. "It's a family atmosphere," Nystrom says. "You have to trust these people and they have to trust you. It's like a surrogate family."
It's a surrogate family that can be tough to balance with actual family. When she raising her sons, Nystrom's ex-husband often had to care for the boys while she was out in the field. She recalls missing Easter once when her boys were young, but fires aren't known for convenient timing.
After many summers in the field, Nystrom is spending much of this year working on fire prevention. You may see her at a neighborhood association meeting, using a "sim table" to make a high-tech demonstration of what could happen if you don't thin out that underbrush and move the wood pile away from the house, but her days in the field aren't over.
As challenging as it is, Nystrom says she'll be fighting fires as long as she can physically do it.
"I can't imagine doing something else," she says.
Santa Fe County Burn Restrictions are in effect, meaning no open fires of any kind are allowed within the county. Any open burn permits (for vegetation or rubbish) previously issued for burning are now considered void.
For information on fire safety and prevention, including planning and evacuation, visit co.santa-fe.nm.us/fire/fire_prevention